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Communication at Christmas – information, tips and ideas for a happy holiday!

Some people love the festive season – the flashing lights, the excitement and anticipation, the parties! For others it’s just hard work with the shopping, cooking and preparations. Whatever the case, Christmas is a great time for having fun and playing games that can help to develop children’s speech and language skills.

‘Remembering games’ are a really good way to help children listen and pay attention. Try playing “Father Christmas came down the chimney and brought me…” This game is a bit like ‘My grandmother went shopping…’where you take it in turns to add a new present each time. How many things can you all remember? Or talk about action words as you wrap up presents for your friends and family. You can talk about wrapping, cutting, sticking, folding, scrunching, tearing…the list goes on!

Christmas is a great time for helping children develop their story telling skills using games and you can make up some silly stories and working out the endings, it’s great fun! What would happen if Santa’s presents fell out of his sleigh as he was flying through the sky, or Rudolph decided he was hungry and wanted to stop for a snack? How many different ideas for endings can you come up with? See where your imagination takes you.

However, for some Christmas can be a really stressful time of year. Children with speech, language and communication needs can often find it hard this time of year for lots of different reasons. Juliet, the parent of a 4 year old with autism, describes Christmas as needing more preparation than moving house. ‘He just seems to hate Christmas. He screams when carol singers come to the door. He doesn’t like flashing lights on the tree. And crackers are definitely out.’ But it has got easier as Juliet got to know how Max responds, what he gets anxious about and how hard he finds it cope. The aspects that Max finds difficult to deal with here are:

  • Too much sensory stimulation – the flashing lights and the noises are too much for him to cope with and he would rather have somewhere with less stimulation.
  • Difficulties understanding the social situation – strangers turning up unexpectedly to sing songs he doesn’t know, wearing funny hats and shaking buckets just doesn’t make any sense to Max as it’s unpredictable, out of the ordinary and so can bring on a sense of panic.
  • Max can find it hard to interpret the social situations, for example, by thinking that all the presents are for them and getting upset when they’re not.

How can you help?

There are things we can do to help children like Max cope with the changes that Christmas brings:

Try to think ahead

Holidays involve a change in routine which can cause children to become unsettled and anxious. They sometimes don’t know what’s going to happen next and this can make them more upset than usual. We can help reduce their anxiety by letting them know what will happen day to day using a visual timeline. This lets you talk about and show children what’s going to happen using pictures; it’s a bit like us using a diary. You can also signal change to routine using the timeline which children find reassuring. You can find out more about visual timetables by downloading I CAN’s factsheet. There are also lots of ways you can create visual timelines using I Pads and tablets.

If you are going somewhere unfamiliar try to prepare children by showing them pictures about where you are going and who’s going to be there. If you have any photos you can make up a photobook for them to hold when they’re travelling so they can anticipate what will happen on the journey and when you arrive. This can also be a useful start for conversations. You can also teach them some words they might need to know or won’t understand in advance, so that words like ‘grotto’, for example, aren’t confusing.

Sensory overload

We all have different environments that calm or excite us. Some children can get overwhelmed in a situation that we think is normal because they are very sensitive to noise or flashing lights. Think about your child’s sensory preferences – are they scared by noise or lights? Or do they like them? Some children become overwhelmed by what’s going on around them but other children may love staring at the Christmas lights.

If they do get overwhelmed is there somewhere they can go to calm down? Do they have certain activities that they enjoy to calm them down? Some children like a quiet, cosy space other children have a favourite DVD that helps them. Sometimes having a bit of down time can really help when it all gets too much (this counts for adults as well as children!).

Learning what to do

Children with SLCN can find it difficult to know what to do in social situations so new situations are a great opportunity for helping them to learn and see what to do. For example, prompt ‘you can open your present’ and model it for them. Or the reverse – help them to see that they don’t open everyone else’s presents at once by role playing the situation in advance!

Want to find out more? You can call I CAN Help on 020 7843 2544 and book a time to speak to one of our speech and language therapists. We will call you back free of charge and can give you tips and ideas to help during the holidays – and all year round!